As if sorting out the 2010 Big East jumble wasn't difficult enough, I've been tasked with coming up with the super-early forecast for the 2011 season already. Given my recent prognostication track record -- hey, my 2010 preseason pick (Pittsburgh) did win a share of the conference title at least -- odds are this won't be too accurate. But it should be fun and a good cause for debate. I only ask one thing: Do not rip these selections without providing your own rankings.
And away we go:
1. South Florida: Yep, I'm taking a flyer on the Bulls. The 5-2 record down the stretch, impressive bowl showing and returning young talent have me convinced that Year 2 of the Skip Holtz era could be special. B.J. Daniels must make major progress and the receiving corps needs to get better. But if UConn can make a BCS game, why not the Bulls in '11?
2. West Virginia: The Mountaineers should get much better on offense under the direction of Dana Holgorsen and return plenty of key playmakers, including quarterback Geno Smith. But they also lose eight starters off that terrific defense, and the potential for tension in this awkward coaching transition is just too much for me to make the Mountaineers the favorite.
3. Syracuse: The Orange lose some very valuable seniors, especially Doug Hogue, Derrell Smith and Delone Carter. But they also bring back a lot, and the offense should continue to make strides. Will Syracuse build off its breakthrough 2010 season or backslide? I say it keeps moving forward.
4. Pittsburgh: Lots of questions for this team, which will be making a coaching transition and could be shifting into entirely new philosophies on both offense and defense. Losing Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin hurts, too. But there's still plenty of talent on hand for Todd Graham, who might make the Panthers dangerous by the time conference play rolls around with his high-scoring spread attack.
5. Louisville: If this were the 2012 power rankings, Louisville might be near the top (with TCU?). The Cardinals are bringing in boatloads of blue-chippers and will be a force soon. But they could take a small step backward, or sideways, in 2011 after the departures of so many valuable seniors. Almost the entire offensive line has to be rebuilt, and a true freshman could start at quarterback. This will be a young team that could threaten if it matures quickly.
6. Connecticut: Had Jordan Todman and Randy Edsall come back, I might have made the Huskies the preseason favorite. But as I write this, we don't even know who will be coaching this team in 2011. So consider this No. 6 ranking a mere holding spot until we find out more about UConn's new direction. Several starters will be back, but there will be a new quarterback (which might be a good thing) and a new heir to the running-game legacy. And perhaps completely new schemes on both sides of the ball. Nobody knows anything about the 2011 Huskies right now.
7. Cincinnati: The Bearcats have the most potential of any team to make a huge leap in 2011. Virtually every player comes back off the defense, which can't help but be better than it was in 2010. The offense returns a strong core led by Zach Collaros, D.J. Woods and Isaiah Pead. The second-year in Butch Jones' system should have everybody more comfortable. But until I actually see some improvement from the defense and in ball security by the offense, I will start Cincinnati out low.
8. Rutgers: Here's another team that should be better than 4-8 in 2011. The maturation of players like Mohamed Sanu, Mark Harrison, Jordan Thomas and Jeremy Deering should pay dividends, as should the return to a pro-style attack under former Pitt coordinator Frank Cignetti. Chas Dodd still has to prove he's the guy at quarterback while avoiding the sophomore slump that plagued Tom Savage. There's no experience behind Dodd now that Savage has left. And that offensive line is the offseason's biggest reclamation project. This is another case of needing to see it before I believe it.